GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday emphasized the need to restore hope for residents of struggling Central American nations to help address the increase in migration from the region as she pleaded with them not to make the dangerous trek in the first major test of her diplomatic skills on a three-day foreign trip.
Her comments came after her meeting with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, in which she addressed everything from vaccine sharing to corruption in the region. But in her opening remarks, she emphasized the need for both leaders to act to improve the situation on the ground for Guatemalans, whom she said don’t want to leave their homeland but are forced to by poor living conditions.
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“Hope does not exist by itself, it must be coupled with relationships and trust, it must be coupled with tangible outcomes in terms of what we do as leaders to convince people that there is a reason to be hopeful about their future and the future of their children,” she said.
Speaking in a press conference after their meeting, Harris encouraged would-be migrants to stay home and avoid the dangerous journey, pledging that the U.S. would continue to enforce its immigration laws. “Do not come,” she said plainly. “In large part the only people who benefit are coyotes.”
Harris also said the fact that she chose Guatemala and Mexico for her first overseas trip was a “reflection of the priority President Biden placed on this region.” She said the two nations are “interconnected and interdependent” and it’s in “our collective interest that we work together.”
The Department of Justice announced shortly after Harris’ bilateral meeting with Giammattei the establishment of a law enforcement task force aimed at fighting human trafficking and smuggling groups in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The department announced it was also stepping up its effort to fight corruption in Central America.
“We are creating this task force to address corruption, to address human smuggling, doing the work to make sure certain progress be made if we are going to attract investment,” said Harris.
Harris is visiting Guatemala and Mexico as part of her role in dealing diplomatically with the irregular migration to the U.S., and she will meet with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Tuesday.
In Guatemala, the country’s widespread corruption will loom over the discussions, even as Harris seeks new agreements with Giammattei to help stem the spike in migration.
“We must root out corruption wherever it exists,” said Harris, calling it a top priority. “It erodes the confidence the people have in their government and its leaders.”
Speaking in the press conference, Giammattei blamed drug traffickers for corruption.
Giammattei said the U.S. and Guatemala agreed to collaborate a “very simple process” through visas to allow for regular migration to the U.S., and that the two countries would work to prioritize family reunifications.
Nongovernmental organizations placed Guatemala’s widespread corruption at the top of their list of concerns before Harris’ visit. Last month, two lawyers who are outspoken critics of Giammattei’s administration were arrested on what they say were trumped-up charges aimed at silencing them.
The selection of judges for Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, its highest, was mired in influence peddling and allegations of corruption. Giammattei picked his chief of staff to fill one of the five vacancies. When Gloria Porras, a respected force against corruption, was elected to a second term, the congress controlled by Giammattei’s party refused to seat her.
“Corruption really does sap the the wealth of any country, and in Central America is at a scale where it is a large percentage of GDP across the region,” said special envoy Ricardo Zúñiga, who joined Harris in the meeting with Giammattei. “We see corruption as one of the most important root causes to be dealt with.”
Harris said she had a “very frank and very candid” conversation with Giammattei “about the importance of an independent judiciary” and the importance of a strong civil society.
Besides her meeting with Giammattei, Harris will participate in a roundtable with Guatemalan community and civil society leaders, and she’ll meet with young innovators and entrepreneurs, including a number of female entrepreneurs.
In addressing the root causes of migration, Harris has laid out an approach centered on creating better opportunities and living conditions in the region through humanitarian and economic aid. She’s focused many of her public events and listening sessions before this visit on work with civil society organizations and international businesses, which her aides say is an acknowledgment that the work of improving the situation in the region cannot be done by its governments alone.
Harris announced plans to send $310 million to provide support for refugees and address food shortages, and she recently secured commitments from a dozen companies and organizations to invest in the Northern Triangle countries to promote economic opportunity and job training.
Washington won some goodwill through its vaccine diplomacy this past week. Giammattei and López Obrador both received calls from Harris on Thursday telling them the U.S. would be sending 500,000 doses and 1 million doses, respectively, of Covid-19 vaccine.
But Harris’ aides say corruption will continue to be a central focus of her bilateral meetings with both Giammattei and López Obrador.
While in Latin America, Harris will also have to navigate the politics of immigration. Congressional Republicans have criticized both President Joe Biden and Harris for not visiting the U.S.-Mexico border and contend the administration is ignoring what they say is a crisis there. April was the second-busiest month on record for unaccompanied children encountered at the border, following March’s all-time high. The Border Patrol’s total encounters in April were up 3% from March, marking the highest level since April 2000.
Conservatives will be watching Harris closely for any missteps, hoping to drag her into further controversy on an issue that they see as a political winner.